Raleigh Rallies ‘Round Rainbow Six Tournament, Sees Economic Boost As Cities, Schools Jump On Esports

Forbes Finance 2 months ago
Outside Raleigh, N.C., Convention Center before Raleigh Major Rainbox Six esports event

The world of sports is becoming an economic driver even for smaller cities and universities now jumping into the burgeoning industry.

Officials with the city of Raleigh, N.C., are touting the outsized economic impact of the Raleigh Major, a recent tournament the city hosted for long-time esports league ESL and publisher Ubisoft’s latest flavor of its first-person-shooter franchise Rainbow Six. The city and its tourism board worked with consulting company Big Block to evaluate facilities, get a crash course on the business of esports and better prepare for the particular needs of an esports event. The tournament was held over a week in mid-August at the Raleigh Convention Center.

All told, the city’s tourism board estimates the Raleigh Major generated $1.45 million in economic stimulus, a notable boost for a mid-sized city of about 400,000 residents.  The tournament attracted major sponsors such as Pepsi, PayPal, Celito.net, HyperX, and some of the local universities.

The event also was broadcast globally on Twitch in at least 15 languages, attracting more than 16 million livestream views and over 6 million total hours watched, a nice megaphone for the tourism board to tout the town’s charms.

“As esports grows, we believe that Greater Raleigh can serve as a global hub for the whole industry,’ said Loren Gold, Executive Vice President of the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Our motto is Play. Watch. Make., which means that the Greater Raleigh community not only plays and watches esports, but we also make and design the software and technologies that help power the global esports industry,”

Raleigh, one of the points of North Carolina’s Research Triangle, is well positioned to take advantage of esports, Gold said. Five game publishers are  based there, as are tech companies Lenovo, Red Hat and SAS, and a large number of colleges and universities, including North Carolina State.

The city pushed for an esports tournament over other kinds of entertainment because it can draw fans from much further afield than other sporting events or concerts, said Gold. As well, esports can feed into engineering and other programs at N.C. State and other local universities.

“Esports has passionate fans who will come from around the globe to drive tourism economic impact, while comparably sized traditional sporting events and concerts typically are regional draws with a higher percentage of local attendance," Gold said. 

The tournament averaged about 2,600 attendees per day. That’s a far cry from the 130,000 who showed up last winter at the long-running Intel Extreme Masters championships (which cover several popular games) over two weekends in the south Poland city of Katowice. But the strong turnout for a first-time tournament for a single game suggests a strong appetite for esports live events even in smaller cities.

One big difference with esports is the number of out-of-town visitors, either day-trippers or overnight visitors from  further away, who tend to show up. Economic impact goes up when more day-trippers and overnighters are coming to town, according to calculations by Tourism Economics, a division of Oxford Economics.

The city is trying to build on the tournament’s success to make Raleigh a regular stop for a variety of esports circuits. The visitors bureau, Big Block and the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance are heading an esports organizing committee with the goal of hosting five esports events annually within three to five years.

It won’t be simple to reach that goal, however, said Ed Tomasi, Big Block’s managing director of esports, and a Raleigh resident. The esports industry has been around for close to two decades, but has expanded substantially in the past couple of years, and begun attracting major outside investment dollars for new events, teams, and platforms.

“Esports is not something that can be homegrown overnight,” said Tomasi, a long-time veteran of the industry. He and Big Block tapped their industry relationships and experience with esports events at E3 and DreamHack Atlanta to help make the Raleigh Major come together.

Navigating all that can be complex for novices. But it’s a great opportunity right now for the city to carve out a significant presence in a burgeoning sector that feeds into its existing tech and gaming DNA.

Raleigh and N.C. State aren’t the only places looking to get in on the esports boom. Other universities continue to launch esports teams and clubs, on top of programs at schools such as Washington, Ohio State and Full Sail. And companies such as Comcast, which is building a $50 million arena for its Philadelphia Overwatch franchise, are investing too.

Overwatch publisher Activision Blizzard reported that its just-concluded grand finals drew an  average of 1.12 million viewers per game, up 16 percent from its first season in 2018. Those viewers watched on both Amazon-owned Twitch, which live-streamed all the Overwatch competitions, and Disney-owned broadcast network ABC, which only televised the finals and semifinals.

Variety reported that Overwatch viewership among 18 to 34-year-olds was up 11 percent. That was better performance with that highly sought-after demographic than any sport, e- or otherwise, in the past year, according to Daniel Cherry, Activision Blizzard’s chief marketing officer.

Live attendance and economic impacts for the league’s events should only increase  next season, as Activision now requires all 20 of its franchises to build arenas in their home cities (across three continents) and host home-and-home matches. Matches the first two seasons were largely held at the Blizzard Arena in Burbank, Calif., once the TV studio for Johnny Carson’s late-night show.

Esports’ economic potential is continuing to attract the notice of smaller schools, too. Widener University – a nearly 200-year-old private school with 3,300 undergraduates in Chester, Pa. – is weeks away from its first esports season, with teams competing in League of Legends, Super Smash Brothers, Overwatch and Rocket League, said coach Devin Hartnett.

The school hired the 28-year-old Hartnett, who previously coached teams in League of Legends and Super League Gaming, last April.

The school was motivated to get into esports as way to attract both local students and exchange students from overseas, particularly in gamer hotbeds such as China and South Korea where “the culture there regarding esports is very different,” Hartnett said. 

“Widener’s approach was great,” Hartnett said. “They know this was something that comes up regularly in admissions (conversations with potential students). They said, ‘What do we need?’”

The school invested in a space that includes more than 30 custom-built gaming PCs from specialty vendor Origin, a separate space for competitions, a projector system to watch game replays for team video training, and Hartnett’s offices. It’s all located in the University Center, near dorms, classrooms and, crucially for those late-night grind sessions, the cafeteria.

“The space is set up to the point where players’ success is the main focal point,” Hartnett said.

Widener officials also put aside money for modest scholarships to reward Hartnett’s best players, he said.

At up to $2,000 each, those scholarships won’t go too far at a school that charges more than $47,000 annually in tuition and fees, but they are another incentive for better players to come to Widener. But notably, athletes in the school’s more traditional sports play in the NCAA’s Division III, which typically doesn’t have any scholarships.

Hartnett’s  a believer in esports’ potential economic upsides, too.

“On a local level, there’s definitely a benefit,” he said. “You hold a tournament and 30,000 people show up, you’ll have 30.000 people who need to go eat something, or want to do something between games. Places that stay open late can sell (to those audiences) and make more than they would otherwise.”


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